Black Techs Seek COVID-19 Solutions, Starting with Access

In Houston, a 22-year-old programmer named Nile Dixon has set out to close the food insecurity gap for people in his area.

In Chicago, 4D Healthware founder and CEO Star Cunningham is also using tech to serve the needs of vulnerable people with her telemedicine company.

Also in Chicago is City Health Tech, which is working on hand-washing technology.

And in Silicon Valley, Kevin Nichols is hoping to help change the lack of diversity in the tech business with a STEM education program called The Social Engineering Project (TSTEP).

Long before COVID-19, the lack of racial and gender diversity in the technology field was a cold reality. Now, COVID has set things on fire — as communities struggle with how to make technology accessible in every household and to bring more Black and brown people to this industry. While African Americans are estimated to make up 1 percent of the tech industry across the United States, these Black techies have each set out to contribute to changing that makeup, while also helping technology to bolster the health, education and power of Black communities.

When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, Nile Dixon programmed and released an SMS-based chatbot to help loved ones locate one another.

Watching the coronavirus pandemic spread in 2020, Dixon decided to build another text-based chatbot, this one called Food Pantry Chatbot. It helps Houston-area residents locate food banks, check the stock and obtain directions to the proper location.

“What I started isn't really a business,” Dixon said. “I knew there would be a large population of people without access to food. So I built a chatbot that helps individuals in the city of Houston find the nearest food pantry. The SMS-based chatbot that allows for individuals to text their address and ZIP code and find which pantry is closest to them.”

According to the Houston/Harris County, 16.3 percent of its 4.7 million residents are food insecure, including 1 in 4 children.

Dixon keeps his eye on the number of unique users and searches made on the bot. He delivers the bot in multiple languages and said the program is built to scale. The only drawback is that he’s fully funding the program, costing him more than $2,200 so far. He’s now in talks to receive local funding.

In Chicago, 4D Healthware’s Star Cunningham is using her telemedicine company to serve vulnerable people. The company provides digital devices and patient engagement through a clinical care team and artificially intelligent software that creates more cohesive patient engagement. The solution delivers content such as instructional videos on a new diagnosis, takes a survey of how patients feel and monitors key metrics such as blood pressure or glucose levels.

“I was one of those people with a big binder full of medical documents, carrying it from doctor to doctor and visit to visit, because we have a medical healthcare system where the doctors don’t communicate with each other,” Cunningham said of why she founded the company.

While working at IBM, she was faced with an illness and found herself being prescribed a medicine that contained enough iron to put her in a coma. “I was slowly being poisoned by the iron, and I would have been in the emergency room no later than the end of the week,” she said. The entrepreneur was prescribed the high-iron drug by a specialist who had no idea that her primary care doctor had long ago made a notation about her iron sensitivity.

The tech health company is licensed to operate in Arkansas, Illinois and North Carolina, but now Cunningham operates 4D across the United States, given the relaxation of state-by-state licensing to respond to the pandemic. During the pandemic, Cunningham said that her work has expanded to educate patients on the medical and scientific terms in conversation about the virus, such as quarantine, personal protective equipment, or PPE, and social distancing.

“There are people who have had little formal education or simply aren’t familiar with these terms, and we need them to understand what we mean by quarantine,” Cunningham said. “It means that if you have tested positive then no family should be over at your house visiting. It means people need to be in separate, sealed spaces, wear masks and gloves. We have to be specific.”

So how does she measure success?

“We’re seeing promising numbers in business revenue, patient retention and engagement with the product,” Cunningham said. “4D will improve as we continue to engage patients and the software learns to better triage patients and to scale, it’s not only the need for funding, but it is going to take healthcare and the government to change their ways regarding our people.”

Another set of Chicago entrepreneurs share a vision of improving health care education. Irewole (Wole) Akande was born in Nigeria and moved to Chicago in 2013. He’s chief technology officer of City Health Tech and partners with CEO and founder Ibraheem Alinur.

“We met each other at a tech conference,” Akande said. “We were the only two people under the age of 25.” Alinur shared his idea for a way to improve hand-washing and Akande was sold.

Says Akande: “I always had this focus on making an impact and thought of things in terms of Africa. Ibraheem was so passionate and his idea just showed me how I could make an immediate impact in my current environment.”

The tool, Opal, displays proper hand-washing guidance along with a scroll of some curated news content to keep users updated on world events, say the two engineers. City Health Tech is in the prototype stage of product development with some user testing done at a Chicago Public School called Academy for Global Citizenship.

“We built into our business model a way to get funding so that they (Academy for Global Citizenship) could access our devices. We’ve put money aside from Day 1 so that we could partner with them.”

When City Health Tech won a pitch competition prize of $4,000, it put some of the money toward funding the product deployment into Academy for Global Health. Akande and Alinur’s hand-washing display product may not have been ready to roll out at the outbreak of COVID-19, but the two see their work as critical to the way the world begins to recover from the crisis.

“We need more young people thinking about urban planning,” Alinur said. “That’s something we're trying to encourage, a mindset of system and solutions thinking. Most people on our team are people of color.”

In Silicon Valley, Kevin Nichols founded The Social Engineering Project (TSEP) when he learned more about the critical need for more diversity in Silicon Valley, he decided to create a solution.

“I partnered with a buddy of mine from high school who is a professor at Stanford to combat the problem,” Nichols said of Bryan Brown, an associate professor of science. Before the coronavirus struck, Nichols relied heavily on in-person programs such as Science in the City, a two-week-long summer camp that he’s now working to convert into a virtual experience for youth. He just needs to secure the right staff.

“Our goal is to uplift the Black community educationally so that Black students fall in love with traditional STEM subjects. ... and eventually work in a tech company,” Nichols said.

After COVID-19 hit, The Social Engineering Project pivoted to offer its STEM summer camp virtually and open it up to students across the country. Nichols surveyed parents to determine what resources they needed, and he found that nearly 20 percent of the students didn’t have devices.

“We have a relationship with First Republic Bank and they gave us 40 laptops for students. We’re also receiving donations from Thermo Fisher Scientific — they’re sending backpacks stocked with items like goggles, gloves, lab coats,” Nichols said.

He’s in conversation with SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to secure funds that will cover the shipping costs of the backpacks to each student. SLAC is one of the Department of Energy’s 17 national labs and the students will have the opportunity to interview some of its scientists who are working on COVID-19 research.

In addition to providing materials to students, Nichols hopes to “cover the $350 cost of participation with scholarships for at least 20 students.”

Besides Nichols and Brown, engineering physicist Dorian Bohler and mechanical engineer Margaux Lopez, both SLAC researchers, will offer instruction to students. Nichols said the students will “do the lab with instructors using the materials from the backpack we shipped to them — with an adult present — then we assign them homework and we give them an affirmation to encourage them to do the homework.”

For COVID-19, they’ll be using laser pointers to measure diffraction and interview scientists at SLAC about their own specialized laser currently being used to understand the behavior of the coronavirus — something that will prepare the students as they may find themselves one day working to solve a problem similar to the spread of COVID-19.

“I’m going to create a new generation of young people —get them interested in math and science, chemistry, physics (and) engineering,” Nichols said.

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